Reinventing feminism

Can a new generation of activists rescue the “F” word from ignominy?

Megan Seely addresses a recent meeting of the California National Organization for Women Board of Directors.

Megan Seely addresses a recent meeting of the California National Organization for Women Board of Directors.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Born the year that the Roe vs. Wade decision guaranteed a woman’s right to get an abortion, Megan Seely is comfortable with the “F” word. She’ll tell you that her first rites of passage into this word came in the form of contact football at age 8. And no, it wasn’t as if she had that word on her mind when she said she wanted to play, nor was it the word that made her think that she could.

From a whisper to a scream, “feminism” is the “F” word that has been so important to Seely, but it’s a word that even some women don’t like to use anymore, a word that many feminists claim has been stolen from right under them. Now, a new generation of women is trying to reclaim and redefine that word for themselves.

At just 28 years old, Seely is the youngest elected president of California National Organization for Women (NOW). Quite the young Superwoman, she teaches sociology and women’s studies at Sacramento City College while heading a new administration at CA NOW, where six out of the nine executive board members are women under the age of 30.

The California chapter is catching the current of a tidal wave. The Third Wave, to be exact. Third Wavers like Seely have given the women’s movement a much-needed facelift in the spirit of its new Renaissance.

The concept of the Third Wave supposedly began with Rebecca Walker, daughter of famed novelist Alice Walker, who founded the Third Wave Direct Action Corp. in 1992, a small organization of young multicultural feminists kicking butt in a low-key sort of way. The term was coined to distinguish the three separate zeitgeists in the women’s movement.

The First Wave (circa 1850s-1920s) is associated with Susan B. Anthony and women’s suffrage. The Second Wave bred feminist icons such as Gloria Steinem and NOW co-founder Betty Friedan. This wave is probably best remembered for Roe vs. Wade and the deconstruction of the patriarchal structure.

“Many Third Wavers have always known abortion rights, have always had the feeling of equal access to education and employment opportunities,” Seely explained. “And though we haven’t achieved full equality in any of these institutions, we grew up believing there was a sense of equality, or believing there was the opportunity for equality.”

While Third Wavers recognize that they have directly or indirectly benefited from the work that was done in the ’60s and ’70s, they also acknowledge that, unfortunately, many young people today no longer want to identify with that other “F” word. And that’s a problem.

According to Susan Faludi’s 1992 book Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women, 62 percent of American women would not call themselves feminists. That’s precisely why organizations like CA NOW have slapped on a new coat of paint and recruited some fresh faces and ideas from the younger generation.

“I think we see a lot of people who are feminists, but don’t understand the definition of feminism, and then buy into the myths and misconceptions of what they hear,” said Seely, who was introduced to NOW 10 years ago as a volunteer while attending California State University, Chico. “So I think an organization like NOW is really in a position to reintroduce feminism to generations of people who are benefiting from feminism, and who could continue to benefit by being active in the movement.”

Feminism’s name has been hurt by both internal and external forces over the last 30 years.

Conservatives have definitely had a hand in crafting many of the misconceptions that Third Wavers like Seely now struggle to overcome. From the beating that Hillary Rodham Clinton received for her now infamous comments about not wanting to stay home and bake cookies to Rush Limbaugh railing about “feminazis,” the feminist label has been intentionally tainted by right-wingers.

So it’s understandable that many Third Wavers think it’s time to debunk the notion that feminists are all radical, bra-burning, angry man-haters with hairy armpits and a fascist agenda to take over the male-dominated planet.

Seely shudders at the mention of Limbaugh’s term “feminazi,” contending, “Feminism is bringing people up and celebrating them, bringing equality to them, which is completely opposite to what Hitler had done, so I think of all the myths and misconceptions, that particular one is really gross.”

While she admits that the women’s movement developed a bad reputation early on for not being inclusive enough of women of all diversities, she does not believe it was the intent. From its inception, the movement has had to contend with the idea that feminists were opposed to stay-at-home moms.

“I think that any negativity that happened to the word ‘feminism’ was brought on, as it happens with most groups, by a fringe of that group,” observed Bob Dunning, who currently hosts The Bishop’s Radio Hour on AM 1620’s KSMH, Sacramento’s Catholic radio station. “There’s that element about the movement that did appear to be anti-man, anti-family. It seemed as if to make their point, some of them felt like they needed to attack the family.”

Seely explained how that perception originated: “Betty Friedan came to feminism from her own point of view, which was about women not being able to pursue higher economic positions, not having their labor recognized. Somehow it got packaged as we don’t support women who stay home, which is false. So I do think that’s a bit of a legacy we have to overcome today.”

The problem with the traditional approach to women staying at home, Seely observes, is the idea that the woman should stay home, should raise the children, should have children. All these “shoulds” are a problem according to Seely, who believes that there is disrespect within the conservative movement toward women choosing to stay home.

“So what if you’re a woman who chooses to stay home because you think you’re the best one to raise your kid, and you need some economic support?” she asked. “Well, the same politicians who are telling you that you ought to be home are not supporting you to be able to do that if you weren’t fiscally independent.”

Not only that, but what about the question of equal pay? According to information from the U.S. Department of Labor released last year, women still earn only 75 cents for every dollar men earn.

Dunning believes this is a myth: “Those women who choose to be stay-at-home moms, that’s their choice. They end up frequently taking part-time work, and part-time work is almost invariably low wage work,” he noted. “And more of those jobs are filled by women who have made the choice in their family or situation that they want to take care of their child part-time, and they want to work part-time. Rarely do you see a man making that same choice. So as a result, you will see women making 75 cents on the dollar, but not in the same job.”

From the unsuccessful attempts over 78 years to pass the Equal Rights Amendment; to the under-representation of women in politics, science and business; to the fragility of abortion rights and the continued threat of domestic violence and sexual harassment—can the feminist movement honestly say that it has “come a long way, baby?”

“I think women have absolutely achieved equality,” Dunning said, questioning the relevance of the feminist movement today. “The only place that they haven’t achieved equality is that it’s still only men who get drafted. And I don’t see any feminists jumping up and down to say they want to get drafted.”

CA NOW’s vice president of diversity, Victoria Luong, disagrees that women have attained full equality. “I think we have come a long way,” said the 28-year-old, “but sometimes it’s like taking three steps forward and two steps back.”

She cites George W. Bush being in the White House as a definite step back, but also notes that because Bush is in office, it has rallied a lot of people to advocate for issues that they may not have in the past, which is a step forward. “Plus, I think the kids nowadays are much more aware of what’s going on in terms of local and global politics.”

Dana Saks, age 21 and current CA NOW treasurer, agrees. She became a feminist at 14 and says she thrived on being the oddball growing up. “My parents have always said they don’t know where I came from,” she joked.

At 16, Saks was elected to the Palm Springs NOW board, and at 19, became the youngest member of the state board when selected secretary in 1999. “I loved having the opportunity to change people’s minds,” she said of her early involvement with activism. “I loved wearing buttons to school, having to explain to people what they meant. I never really thought that I was making an impact on them, but then when I was graduating from high school, people would write in my yearbook how much they respected me for what I did. And I never realized that they got it.”

Sometimes young people get quite a lot, so NOW has started to focus on them when they’re young. CA NOW became the first chapter to establish the “young feminist coordinator” position on the executive board. Seely was the first to fill the position in 1999, and now it’s Stacey Karp, who’s also 28. She started “Girls Figure In” in 1997, a group that travels to high schools to talk about body image, self-esteem and the portrayal of women in the media.

Christina Hioureas, CA NOW secretary and currently the youngest member on the board at 19, even suggested burying good articles with feminist ideas in magazines such as Glamour to catch those unsuspecting girls off guard who may be only reading them for the make-up tips.

“It’s so common sense,” Hioureas says of feminism. “That’s why it drives me crazy when people think that feminism is so extreme when everybody is a feminist. Everybody wants everybody to be treated equal.”

That last part may not be so true. At times women have become feminism’s worst enemy. Sisters or no sisters, there’s often still that sense of threat among women that seems to keep women down.

“I think it’s sad,” Seely said. “I think we’re put in the position of fighting one another rather than coming together to build our numbers and our strength. And certainly, what we know is that when women come together collectively to work on something, it’s a powerful bunch of people, and we’re much stronger when we’re working together. That would be where I want our focus to be.”